Hakka Lei Cha Tea

by Joyce Maio- June 2016

In the early 1980s, Taiwan invented Bubble Tea and created a fad. This cool, refreshing fruit- flavored drink infused with tea and tapioca pearls can be found almost everywhere today.
However, for more than two centuries, Taiwan has been renowned for its exquisite high-quality mountain oolongs and takes pride in its traditional craft, using methods passed down from generation to generation.
Yet, little is known in the United States about their Lei Cha Tea (擂茶).
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Last week I attended the annual Taiwan Festival that took place in Union Square, hoping to find a booth offering various tastings of oolongs, but instead, I discovered Lei Cha.
Lei Cha literally is translated as “pounded” or “ground” tea.

It is believed that Lei Cha was consumed by Hakka soldiers for rejuvenation and restorative purpose. The Hakka people are part of the Han dominant Han ethnic group of China, who migrated southward from Henan and Xian in central China. Today they are scattered throughout Asia in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
At the Festival, volunteers had set up communal low tables with stools inviting anyone to sit and prepare their own Lei Cha. Lei Cha is a Hakka tea-based beverage that consists of a mix of tea leaves that are ground or pounded with various roasted nuts, seeds and grains.
On the tables I saw mortars, earthen bowls and pestles for everyone to use. Matcha tea (pulverized green Sencha Tea) was offered for easy use – customary, the tradition calls for oolong leaves or green tea leaves. The ingredients on the tables were roasted peanuts, black, green and red dried beans, sesame seeds, cashews, sunflowers and pumpkin seeds. The recipe can also call for puffed rice, dried lentils and lotus seeds. Some add salt or sugar depending on one’s taste buds.

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The ingredients are ground in a mortar. For proper technique, one must put the palm on top of the pestle and the other hand close to the bowl. Stir for 20 minutes clockwise, or until it is reduced to a paste, add the boiled water over the mixture while continuing to stir until it becomes a thin soup-like beverage. Then it’s ready to drink.

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Of course, today one could certainly use a food processor to achieve the “pounded” effect for mixing the tea and ingredients, but the doing is what makes it fun and brings us back to hands-on tradition!
Lei Cha was originally derived from a Hakka soup called the “Three-Raw-Ingredients Soup” consisting of tea leaves crushed with fresh ginger and rice. Today it is often enjoyed with a variety of side dishes made from leek, long beans, kale, string beans, cabbage, dried radish and aduki beans. In Taiwan, it can also be accompanied with Lei Cha Rice, a porridge that consists of many ingredients of choice, such as ground anchovies, nuts, sesame seeds, basil, mint, garlic, cilantro, coriander, peanuts, pepper and salt. The Lei Cha Tea is then poured over the rice and its assorted ingredients are mixed together.
I was thrilled to have found amidst a popular fair in the heart of Manhattan, a community of people of all ages, sitting together around the table, most of them Chinese and not aware of this tradition, grinding and pounding and discover the making of Lei Cha.
I enjoyed the rich and smooth mixture of Lei cha, but a far cry from the pure, delicate oolongs.

Ho͘ ta là! 呼乾啦! Cheers!

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Tea at Noguchi Museum

The Gate- from everyday to sacred      Tsukubai- the water basinFull Tea house

Today is Easter. Season for rebirth and renewal: Birds are singing. Daffodils are thriving. Trees are burgeoning. Magnolias are blossoming. Spring is here. I feel revitalized.

It is time to celebrate the season’s change and welcome new beginnings, new directions.

I’ve always been a bit Asian in this regard and maybe as a European, I’m also sensitive to the change of seasons and align my lifestyle to each one that comes. For example, the colors I wear, the flowers that adorn my space, the food I prepare, and the tea I drink. My moods are also impacted and as a child, I marvel the new buds coming out daily. I welcome them heart fully.

Today, I saw my first cherry blossoms of the season at the Noguchi museum Zen garden and discovered Tom Sachs art installation: Tea Ceremony. Immersed in Noguchi’s timeless sculptures, the artist created his own inner and outer tea gardens. He appropriated the Japanese tradition of Chanoyu, tea ceremony, into a technology quilt of bricolage run on battery.

Within the space, a contradiction emerges: Noguchi’s serene space and rustic simplicity is now replaced by the artificial vulgarity and chaos of our time. We find in the waiting room, before the Guest is led into the teahouse, a stupa made out of McDonald’s arches, an ishidoro, the traditional lantern, built on a walker, a Bonsai sculpture made out of bronze, its branches representing our personal hygiene products such as toothbrushes, Q-tips, tampons- items we consume to penetrate our innermost darkness. Yet within the hideous and the sublime, between the polarity and ambiguous relationships of East and West, we can still find a balance and a respect for the other.

Whereas a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony can last 4 hours between the Host and the Guests, here the Americanized representation of a Tea Ceremony builds enlightenment on a digital clock, a soundtrack and a sign written in both English and Japanese “Be Here Now”, a line made famous by the Western-born yogi and spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

As tradition calls, all the tools are here for the Host to prepare Tea. Sachs built a mizuya, the water room which is the preparation area next to the chashitsu, the Japanese tea house. These tools take different shapes where Art is not so much about the beauty, the sublime and the natural elements, but rather the utilitarian and battery run of everyday objects. Yet the artist makes sure that every tool symbolizes the components of the making of the tea ceremony.

Twenty-first century meets Sixteen century: NASA astronauts and other modern heroes meet Rikyu, the Tea Master and founder of Japanese Tea Ceremony. Within their differences and contradictions, they share simplicity, a direct approach and honesty of self. Tradition is not invalidated but respected, uplifted to the present and takes on a utilitarian pattern. The Host is still preparing the Tea and engages the Guest to receive and to participate.

Whether Tea drinking experience is kept traditional or adapted to our present culture of gadgets and out of space sensation, it preserves the sanctuary and respect, the culture that thrives on hospitality and an intimate sense of connection. As for me, I still prefer the rustic simplicity, the natural sublime and a time and place to savor my bowl of tea where no digital clocks are in sight.

Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony @ the Noguchi Museum – March 23 to July 24, 2016

9-01 33rd Road (at Vernon Boulevard) in Long Island City, Queens.

Tom Sachs- preparing tea                serving tea